Prince Diana

Members of Italian famiglie are known for their loyalty to one another. And I'm not referring to the stereotypes portrayed in such sagas as The Godfather. The sort of dedication I have in mind is more the loving kind -- the relationship of husband to wife, sister to brother, grandmother to grandchild, imbued with a commitment that is passed down through the generations.

But as is often the case with strong emotions, they can easily swing from one extreme to another.

Nino Pernetti (Caffe Baci, Caffe Abbracci) must have thought of Domenico Diana as family. Diana began as a head waiter at Baci on the restaurant's opening day, and over time rose in the ranks to manager and eventually partner. Then a Tuscan grill chef was brought in from California, leading to marked changes in Baci's cuisine, sparking controversy among patrons and staff. One month after the chef's arrival, Diana split from the "family" business, breaking away from his mentor to start a place of his own.

When a lawyer leaves a firm, he often leaves his clients behind. But some, having taken a liking to that particular lawyer, will follow him. Domenico's has been operating in the Coral Gables business district for about two months now, and those of Baci's former clientele who remain loyal to Diana have taken that long to find it, and the man who had made them welcome.

It wasn't so much a question of family loyalties that kept them away, but a question of timing and, perhaps, location. Domenico's took its proprietor four months to perfect, and he opened to a reception he had never once imagined -- a stand-up-and-take-notice wind, of all things, that came ripping into the Gables. Hurricane Andrew's legacy certainly eliminated any necessity diners might have had to secure a reservation days in advance.

Andrew hasn't been Domenico's only concern. Nestled into a strip of buildings on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Domenico's marker is a small sign, painted red and green like the Italian flag. I might expect to see this over a pizza joint; it works there. But Domenico's is about as far from a joint as oregano.

If being difficult to find isn't troubling enough, there's the competition with, and comparison to, Caffe Baci. I won't dwell on that point, though a comparative review in a situation like this is inevitable and not unfair. It's enough for me that Domenico's is not a trendy trattoria, nor an Italian eatery; you won't find the Beach crowds dressed in black Spandex here. This alone is a good reason to come. An even better reason? The rarity of an Old World style in a New World city, perhaps the most interesting thing Domenico's has to offer.

Several aspects of the restaurant appealed to me in a romantic sense. For one, the atmosphere is an excess of pleasant. The dining room is elegantly European, contemporary and comfortable, finished off by a huge flower arrangement in the center of the room.

The quality of service was also a pleasantry -- mannered, well-spoken, and polite, not to mention prompt. The entire staff was as rehearsed as a play, most likely due to Diana's management experience. Indeed, it was his behavior that impressed me the most, an unpretentious invitation to the royal treatment.

There is no set way for an owner to behave that will ensure the success of his restaurant. I've seen owners lurk in their own basements, eavesdropping on the activity above. I've seen them slink in unannounced to dine, hoping to catch their waitstaff in an inappropriate gesture. Some enjoy a celebrity standing and, covered with stardust, greet only those diners deemed equal in status. And I worked under one gentleman who, being his own chef, would emerge from the kitchen in his dirty whites and buss strangers on the cheek with his sweaty mustache. Each in his own way may enjoy success.

But if behavior alone were the basis on which I judge, Domenico's would certainly rate as a favorite. Ever courtly, Mr. Diana saluted my companion by the name under which the reservation had been made and shook his hand. (More familiar patrons received the double-edged air kiss.) Of course, assumption can be deadly -- he wished a woman with a Jewish-sounding name a "Happy New Year" -- but at least he made an effort to get to know his customers, and I felt properly welcomed.

If only this degree of effort had been made with the menu. It's represented as innovative, but there's nothing outstanding about it. For instance, the air-cured beef in my bresaola del San Bernadino appetizer ($6.95) was as thin as an onion skin, the grana grated on top sharp and lingering. And my partner's crostacei della scogliera ($5.95), a clam and mussel stew tossed in fish broth with a touch of pesto (and a ton of salt), boasted the freshest shellfish, now that the "red tide" months have gone out. The desire is clearly there, and perhaps even the talent -- but the imagination is missing from the very start. Hot and cold antipasti include such standards as fried calamari and zucchini ($5.95), mozzarella in an Italian dressing ($6.95), carpaccio ($6.95), and funghi boscaiolo ($7.95), a marinated and grilled assortment of mushrooms. Even at their highest, most finely tuned levels, these dishes are borrowed from traditional menus.

As for the few riskier ingredients that were used here, they were appreciated -- until they became repetitive. Take the insalata trinacria ($5.75), a mix of fennels, goat cheese, and orange fingers in a sherry vinaigrette, or the verdure con caprino ($6.95), grilled radicchio and endive dusted with goat cheese. These more interesting choices reflect a certain amount of thought. They also reflect another circumstantial irritant -- once an ingredient has been discovered as slightly (for lack of a better word) trendy, it is used over and over again. In this case, it is the goat cheese among the appetizers. Artichokes figure largely in other dishes, such as the bresaola, the delizie di mamma ($7.95), an artichoke, fava bean, and garlic mixture, and the risotto all terra, an Italian rice dish. And pistachios were sprinkled on both my main course, the tortellini aurora ($11.95), a house specialty of squash-stuffed tortellini in an uninsightful cream sauce, and my dessert, a cannoli ($4.75) absolutely ruined by candied fruit in the filling.

By the time the meal is over, each of the "new" ingredients has showed up in two or three different recipes. I prefer dining to be a surprising adventure all the way through, not just at the start of the meal. And on a menu that offers a mere sampling of dishes, it speaks to me of cost-cutting, which is also not a sin -- until someone notices.

I should mention, too, that, although the menu does not list them as such, the pasta courses are served in first-course (read: small) portions and the veal, chicken, and fish courses are served as entrees. My partner and I both chose pasta as a main course, having had no indication that the servings would be insufficient, and preferring the selections of agnolotti, rigatoni, and penne to the blander "simply grilled" meats and fishes. He adored the cavatelli villa Athena ($11.95), a twisted noodle garnished with eggplant and marinara sauce.

He did not adore the size of the portion. It is suggested on the menu that pasta can be shared as an appetizer. I would suggest a plate all to yourself. Following this, a full order of the veal stuffed with (what else?) goat cheese, pine nuts, and raisins ($14.50), the lamb chops in balsamic vinegar ($18.50), or the Dover sole in a citrus sauce ($16.50) might not seem unreasonable, until, boosted by your appetite, the bill arrives.

DOMENICO'S 2271 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 442-2033. Lunch Monday-Friday from 11:00 a.m. -- 2:00 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday from 6:00 p.m. -- 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to midnight.


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